The Timeless Color of Violence
Arturo J. Aldama
The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the conception of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself.
--Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History.”
Several summers ago, students of color from Dillard University, a historically Black liberal arts college in New Orleans that started in 1869 (now devastated by the wrath of Katrina and its institutional neglect in the re-construction efforts) were hosted at the University of Colorado, Boulder under the auspices of the Minority Arts and Science Program. Several CU Chicana and Chicano students took a group of these students to Southern Colorado so that they could appreciate the Mexican and indigenous legacies and histories found in Southern Colorado, the architecture, archeological sites, the historically Mexican communities, and the Southwest landscapes. They stayed in Cortez, Colorado billed by its own Chamber of commerce as the “archeological heartland of the United States” filled with vast “cultural resources” with its proximity to the Anazazi cultural center, and to the Mesa Verde National Park. The town named after Cortez (the famed and brutal, conquistador, Hernan Cortes), a Hispanic town on ancestral Pueblo lands, is now 83 percent “white” according to its own census. This university group of Chicano and African American students where walking near a convenience store on their way back to their hotel when a group of white men with large trucks and confederate flags peeled out the local 7-11 convenience store yelling racial slurs and attempted to run the students down. The students all distinguished leaders on their respective campuses called the police. To make a long story short, the police officers, white and male, chose not to pursue this act of aggression because it was a situation of the students’ word (perceived as overly paranoid) against the word of these vigilante-like thugs (not perceived as thugs, but good old boys from the town). Although no one was assaulted in a way that resulted in direct bodily damage, these acts had the effect of questioning the idea of time as progress when it comes to civil rights and white supremacy.
In specific, in thinking about the rubric of race, power, space and time and talking with some of the students involved made me wonder if the students felt that they went back in time, and thought that “hey, I just got a taste of what parents and grandparents lived, and live.” That is, a taste of legacy of Jim Crow culture of both institutionalized and daily acts of racial hostility that transcends its spatial and temporal locations. Do these acts of hostility serve to remind one to stay in “one’s place”?
I want to consider how a violent act of bigotry in the present effects one’s perception of time as progress. Violence can range from the benign of being snubbed in restaurants, followed in stores, tailed by the police, pulled over in “nice” or white dominant suburbs to more direct types of aggression. These direct types of aggression can range in violence from the linguistic use of derogatory racial and sexual utterances to actual physical acts of intimidation, assault (both physical and sexual), battery, attempted manslaughter, and rape to the most extreme manifestations of a hate crime, torture, mutilation, and, in case of James Byrd, an actual horrific decapitation and dismemberment. The questions that this essay pursues are how an act of violence in the present based on one’s difference from the dominant culture can affect the aggrieved and aggressor’s perception of time as progress? Do these acts of violence in the 21st Century serve to remind one that the racist bigotry that under-girds white privilege and white dominance are just under the surface? Does what George Lipsitz calls a “possessive investment in whiteness”, a “poisonous system of privilege” that enforces the institutional and daily power of “white supremacist” social systems with real economic and symbolic consequences, exist? And does such a system of privilege affect notions of time and space?
Do these discourses and practices of bigotry and racial subjugation belong to a narrative of time that exists in parallel or perpendicular to the narratives of time as progress evinced in popular culture and the media?
To be specific as a professor of Ethnic Studies, when I discuss the history of racial and gender subordination in the United States, a common response that I get from students, including students of color is the idea that overt racial violence has happened in the past and happens with less regularity today, and examples of extreme violence and brutality are really outside the purview of everyday social relations. Most students need to believe that the oblique and haunting extremes of violence as daily acts of social terror and as entertainment spectacles belong to a finite past. Depending on one’s subject position and inherited social privilege, they disbelieve and/or are unwilling to consider that violence permeates the lives of communities of color, and can not be considered just an isolated event. Examples of extreme violence both in the past and present can include family picnic lynching parties of African-Americans and Mexican women (see Juanita de Downieville); the unmitigated police brutality against minority populations (Rodney King, Paul Childs, Frank Lobato and Riverside beatings); and the applauded brutalization, even murder, of those perceived as sexual deviants to heterosexist norms (Teena Brandon and Matthew Shepard). I suspect that the common reaction to compartmentalize these events as incredible (literally), atypical and specifically belonging to a finite past, is a way to maintain a sense of psychological distance and sense of safety among students.
Yet, I ask what happens when is slurred, spit on, hit, kicked, denied a job or promotion, denied a car loan or home loan (regardless of credit worthiness), followed by police car or security guards, constantly being asked, “Can I help you?” when one shops, or is the victim of specific double standard treatments?
Do these acts from the possibly benign and yet annoying to overtly hostile and physically violent have the function and effect of “reminding one” of one’s place? If so, how can this rubric of power and discourse inform one’s understanding of the relationship between time and violence? In specific, does violence affect one’s perception of time? Does violence have its own rules of time? Does violence disrupt one’s sense of time? Does violence have its own exegesis of time? Does it exist outside of an idea that time means progress? Is the violence that enforces oppression the denial or acceleration of progress for dominant cultures through the subjugation of communities of color in direct and indirect forms?
“Embodied Memory, Transcendence, and Telling: Recounting Trauma, Re-establishing the Self” by Roberta Culbertson, a very incisive analysis of the effects of corporal and sexual trauma on memory and subjectivity argues that ”threats” and “harm to the body” leave the “survivor preoccupied with the memory of it, which itself seems both absent and entirely too present.” Culbertson continues: “Most disturbingly, bits of memory…though presenting themselves as clearly past, real and fully embodied, they appear in nonnarrative forms that seem to meet no standard test for truth or comprehensibility.” However, I ask in a slight but measured distinction from Culbertson’s insights into the impacts of violence and trauma: Do acts of violence upon one’s psychic and material body return one to a different narrative of time, a lost time or an ever-present time? Can violence in the present engender an experience of time that are commonly associated with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? These include disassociation, numbing, or being frozen in the actual moment that produces the trauma, a battlefield, a beating, an accident, an assault both lived and witnessed? Do these time-space capsules or chronotopes of lived trauma stay frozen and can be replayed over and over again by triggers in one’s present time?
In the dominant culture there seems to be a common acceptance that the mass struggles of civil rights are over and that everyone has equal civil rights. Even now there are upper class white males who advocate that their civil rights are violated by racial and gender preferences supposedly advocated by Affirmative Action. This is evidenced by the disturbing tendencies of right wing think tanks and ideologues to appropriate civil rights and feminist discourse like The Center for Equal Opportunity, and the movements for the Academic Bill of Rights. But for the most part, some or most accept that the era of MLK, AIM, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords Party is now over because the social conditions have changed and there are legal protections for all citizens regardless (or because) of one’s race, class, gender and depending on counties, and cities, sexuality. And hey, we have Alberto Gonzalez, and Condeleeza Rice in positions of power, so what is the big deal right? Racism is dead, right?
This idea of progress around race, class, gender and sexual equities in my mind is utopic at best and the social conditions of poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration, segregation exists fully today. In many cases, conditions are even worse for women of color, especially given the huge spike in women’s prison population due to mandatory minimums and mandatory sentencing for intimacy violence.
However, the purpose of this essay is not to enter a materialist discussion of whether things are better or worse than they were 30-40 years ago for working class people of color. It is more my interest to think about the consequences of domination on one’s conception of time as progress. What does it mean to be put in ones place? Is it a literal attempt to re-codify social and racial orders that keep white male subjects as the citizen subjects who benefit directly from the status quo? Are these acts set up to remind you who is in power? And most specifically to demarcate the limits of ones own self- formation? Specifically, lets say that to use a personal example (even though I am on the light skinned spectrum as a Chicano) that one who is a professor, has a doctorate from Berkeley, achieved early tenure, is gainfully employed by a University is stopped by campus police and accused of stealing one’s own vehicle, because one does not look right, or in the words of the officer, “does not look like a professor.” Or in the case of my a highly productive Chicano ethnomusicologist colleague who was pulled over coming out the faculty parking structure after working out the campus gym in the evening and ordered out of his sports car convertible, because in the words of the arresting officer, “he looked like a gang member,” because he does not look “right” as a Chicano driving a sports car, and more telling according to the officer he “wore a baseball cap” turned sideways, another inconvertible sign of criminality and deviance in the eyes of the officer?
What are the dynamics of this scenario, which is quite benign, compared to more brutal and direct acts of hate speech and violence? Was I being put in my place? Was my compadre being put in his place? That is, I don’t look like I belong to the University community because I don’t look like what a University professor should look like? If I told him that I was a gardener and worked in facilities management where the majority of my fellow Chicanas/os work, would the police have questioned my legitimacy? What about the case of my Latina colleagues? Are they seen as subservient and sexualized when students make comments on body, hair, and appearance? Do these acts of racial and gender subjection disrupt the legitimacy of one’s scholarly record and accomplishments?
Are these acts of violence, then, formal and informal ways to reify social stratifications, to remind one that regardless of one’s personal and professional accomplishment the time that you are respected for your accomplishments does not exist? It is your race and ethnicity that determines your experience of time as social progress, and hostility serves as a type of metronome of social time or as Patricia Williams writes in her now landmark, auto-theoretical text, Alchemy of Race and Rights: “I was raised to be acutely conscious of the likelihood that no matter what degree of professional I am, people will greet and dismiss my black femaleness as unreliable, untrustworthy, hostile, angry, powerless, irrational, and probably destitute.”
On a more systemic level for communities of color, indigenous, mixed race, Japanese American internment camp survivors, S.E Asians who fled the brutality of war, African Americans, and Chicanos-Latinos perceived as criminals, deviants, forcibly deported because we look, “illegal”, do these acts of hostility in 2006 connect us to originary forms and experiences of trauma that are part of ones collective history? Or the incredible upsurge of neo-Nazi skinhead violence in Europe both West and East, if a Hasidic person is brutalized on the way to Temple? Or if a medical student from Kenya accepted to the prestigious school of medicine in Moscow is brutalized and his literal destruction and immolation is seen as an entertainment for an evening of disgruntled skinhead youths?
So, for example, in the case of the students above: Did these experiences connect them/us to the struggles of their ancestors and to a collective reservoir of memory? Does this create a sense of colored time, and people of color time?
In a sense we are always being judged as late by the chronometer of imposed linear time that is Eurocentric and that drives the mechanics of free-market capitalism. Yet, is it that notion of being late more a statement of being out of sync with the time of the modern neoliberal world? Is it the time of living both out of time and in time that is parallel but in “clave” or keys that connects one to ancestral perceptions of an ever-evolving present?
Recent discussions in the psychoanalysis of trauma consider the imposed fragmentation of the psychic self and how the shards and shadows of memory linger to disrupt and to preternaturally inform ones experience of the present as linked with the originary trauma. So in thinking about these engaging discussions on trauma how can we extend these analyses to communities who negotiate multiple generations of trauma through the violence of colonial displacement, genocide, slavery, and structural violence driven state suppression?
Bloodscripts by Gomel considers the discussions of memory and trauma as a “black hole,” an ellipsis in a subject’s narrative of self living in a world. Gomel writes “This hell of history is created by violence. Memory shapes itself into a simulacrum of the violated body that challenges the consoling fictions of meaning, progress, or manifest destiny. Mutiliated, fragmented, scattered, repressed memory bears witness to the Real of violation.” Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History argues that “… the history of survival, thus takes the form of an unending confrontation with the returning violence of the past.”
Time of Justice
Most oppressed communities and subjects resent being defined by one’s victim-hood and trauma because it continues an imposed and uncontrolled sense of vulnerability, and at the same time there is a frustration at the myopia, denial and systemic amnesia of the legacies of structural violence to establish, enforce, maintain and circulate Eurocentric and patriarchal normalizations of ubiquitous power.
So to conclude my discussion of time, violence, trauma, and intersections of the real and the symbolic, I honor the struggles of ancestors, the struggles of oppressed subjects and the struggles of privileged subjects to acknowledge their privilege and to work at undoing the strictures of racial and gender hostility. In specific I want to consider what discourses, cultural expressions and coalitional social movements will mean to a construct a time of justicia, a time of justice.
What does a time of justice mean? Is it dialectical and Messianic in the Benjaminian sense, “the leap into the open sky of history”? Is it revolutionary in the Fanonian sense of the wretched of the earth ripping off the shackles that limit self and collective determination? Is it what Chela Sandoval calls, “Love as social movement” that is enacted by “revolutionary, mobile, and global coalitions of citizen-activists” committed to “emancipation”? Is it prophetic, the Sexto Sol foretold by Aztec (or Mexica) Tlaotaoni’s, and Maya prophet-astronomers? Is it the thunder and justice of Xango? Does the movement for justice in all of its myriad forms (from students in France, immigrants in D.C., Justice for Janitors, etc.) and the pedagogy of liberation that many in Ethnic and Women’s Studies espouse disrupt the master narratives that keep’s one contained in spaces hierarchicalized and violated by racial, ethnic, gender, sexual and religious, linguistic difference?
Will the disruption of master tropes (or tropes of the master) re-dress the “open wound” of traumatic time, and its constant aggravation cause the wound to heal, to toughen, to be a testament to the pain of struggle yet less vulnerable to being re-punctured by a violence of the present? Or is the time of justice one that allows the multiplicities of times, and spaces to co-exist in resistance, insubordination, and injunction to the violence and suppression to chronometric time that guides the march of (neo)-Empire’s “peace seeking” blood frenzy of late capitalist desire to possess, control, consume, discard, and annihilate all that stands in its way of “progress” and “freedom”?
Arturo J. Aldama serves as Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and as the Director of CSERA (Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in the Americas) at CU Boulder. He is the author of several books on Chicana/o, Native American and transnational cultural and violence studies.